ARSENAL manager Arsene Wenger was criticised for being rude on Match Of The Day after a 2-2 home draw with Hull on Saturday, making ears prick up with curt lines such as “you don’t listen really well to what I say” and “you have been at the game today, I don’t know why you come up with such a question.” True enough, it did seem a little bit shirty, and what’s more only served to play into the hands of the critics who explore his team’s deficiencies each week. They will now brand his irritability as a sign of stress.
Yet at the same time, this tough exchange and the reaction to it may also have revealed the deficiencies in how sports journalism works, particularly in the field of football. I don’t mean the interviewer, Jacqui Oatley, for she asked all the right questions, or at least certainly questions that many fans would have asked if they had the privileged access of a one-on-one interview. It seems she was reflecting a decent share of public opinion, but ended up being snapped at for using the logic Wenger had given in a previous answer. ‘We are letting in too many goals’, he had said, to which she asked: are fans then right to question why haven’t you recruited more defenders?
The trouble is, Wenger, like all Premiership managers, is not really conditioned to answer tough questions. Don’t hate on him for that. He was unprepared, because, let’s face it, football managers are very rarely asked searching questions.
It’s worth thinking how many other journalists, print or broadcast, would have been so persistent with their questioning of Wenger – or any other manager? Some would, but it’s not a high number, is it?
Wenger is used to either a free hit post-match question about how he saw the game just gone or simple matchday questions about whether it was or wasn’t a penalty/red card and how he thought the player who played well played. But here, out of nowhere, he was suddenly having his whole club strategy analysed.
Surely they should all face more of that, as a matter of course. If it happened every week, maybe Wenger et al would even come to respect it. But instead, they are conditioned on a grazing diet of rather flavourless and certainly repetitive press conference questions each week.
If reporters at Premiership football grounds are steering away from asking the really killer questions, after a time you have to wonder whether that's because, ultimately, there is an industry-wide fear of losing access to handouts and press conference invites. Football is so vital to all national newspapers, even more so now that the web traffic connected with any mention of a top Premiership club swamps more considered news and sports stories. You could spend a long time investigating serious issues in football: expensive ticket prices, new stadium land grabs, famous old clubs in administration, match-fixing, racism, sexism, and so on, but an inane 'Wenger says we can win' story can trump all of that hard graft on those all-important online traffic graphs.
See, below, this famous clip and listen to the tone of voice in the background after another reporter’s jokey question about Harry Redknapp, now manager at QPR, being a wheeler-dealer backfires and ends in a waterfall of eff words. Awww, no Harry… it’s a cry, which sounds like please, please, please don’t hold this against us in the future.
At other stadiums, Newcastle manager Alan Pardew does not take questions from the local paper up there, while for many years former Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson refused to appear on the BBC. The distant threat of punishment remains in the air, if not necessarily at Arsenal, where it should be said the club was generous when designing the press facilities at the Emirates Stadium.
If access is everything, does the same fear grip some of the political correspondents who retain the best access to key politicians? Journalists know that with little more than a hand-out, they can sometimes splash on their newspapers’ front pages – as long as it is kept exclusive. But if they ask too many tough questions at a Prime Minister’s press briefing, it’s not unreasonable for writers to fear being marked out and thinking that that big policy reveal is not coming their way after all. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine, in fact, that this is why cabinet ministers look more comfortable talking to, say, Nick Robinson than an unpredictable member of the public on Question Time.